The uneasy confrontation between two generations — contemporary youth who have appropriated the anger and idealism of the late ’60s protest movement, and former radicals now comfortably ensconced in bourgeois conservatism — provides the conflict at the heart of Austrian director Hans Weingartner’s “The Edukators.” Ambling drama shows an exasperating lack of economy and a weakness for diatribe dialogue, but becomes progressively more involving after a laborious start. Commercial prospects look best in Europe, where the themes of revolutionary passion and lapsed values are likely to resonate most.
The profound disenchantment of a faction of today’s student generation, which sparks nostalgia for a brand of anti-establishment rebellion that flowered before many of them were born, has been touched upon peripherally in countless European films, particularly from France and Italy. Weingartner and co-scripter Katharina Held deal with the phenomenon in a far more direct manner.
Tipping its hat at least on a surface level to Francois Truffaut, the drama constructs its political discourse around a romantic triangle that begs to be called “Jule und Jan.” Jan (Daniel Bruhl) is a hard-line activist railing against the injustices of capitalist society and the uneven distribution of wealth. Peter (Stipe Erceg) shares a more mellow variation of his views, as does his girlfriend Jule (Julia Jentsch). Unable to make her rent and crippled by debt after an accident in which her uninsured vehicle totaled a Mercedes, Jule moves in with Peter and Jan.
While Peter is away on vacation, Jan and Jule get to know each other better, experiencing the first timid flickers of attraction. Breaking his pact of secrecy with Peter, Jan illuminates Jule as to the guys’ nocturnal sabotage activity: They break into the homes of rich people to rearrange their belongings as a non-violent warning that their days of plenty are numbered, signing themselves the Edukators.
Intrigued by the idea, Jule persuades Jan to visit the home of Hardenberg (Burghart Klaussner), the wealthy businessman whose car she hit. Despite a narrow escape, they pull off the stunt, realizing only the next day after Peter’s return that Jule has left her cell phone in the man’s villa. When they return the next night to retrieve it, Hardenberg surprises them in the house and recognizes Jule, necessitating a hastily improvised kidnapping.
Lingering over some predictable early developments and talky scenes that drag on far beyond what’s serviceable, Weingartner takes too long to isolate the idealistic rebels with their foe. But once there, the drama becomes more interesting.
With no long-term course of action planned, the trio removes Hardenberg to a cabin in the mountains owned by Jule’s uncle. Peter ventures that this could be their chance to make a real political statement, but no suitable strategy presents itself. Instead, Hardenberg reveals his own past as a free-loving commune-dweller and key member of an extreme-left student movement. Commenting with some degree of ruefulness on how the natural acquisitive urge can become a controlling force, Hardenberg quotes his father’s advice: “Under 30 and not liberal, no heart; over 30 and still liberal, no brain.”
As Peter gradually awakens to the feelings between Jule and Jan, friction divides the three friends. Agreeing with their principles if not their methods, Hardenberg seems to respond to his enforced removal from privilege and responsibility with a new sense of lightness and freedom. The film deceptively seems piloted toward an ingenuously rosy resolution but the script keeps a couple of wry surprises up its sleeve.
Led by rising Euro star Bruhl (“Good Bye, Lenin”), the able, appealing young actors move with unconstrained ease and lend conviction to their often shortsighted characters’ fervor, while Klaussner embraces the contradictions of Hardenberg’s self-serving present and remote, altruistic past, deftly escaping the standard cliches of soulless sell-outs.
Likewise, Weingartner and lensers Matthias Schellenberg and Daniela Knapp avoid the overexploited jittery style of so many digitally shot features, instead wielding their cameras with suppleness, fluidity and penetrating intimacy. Blowup to 35mm is exemplary.